Dr. Temple Grandin taps into "The Autistic Brain"
By her own admission, visual thinker Dr. Temple Grandin isn’t good at algebra – it just doesn’t jive with her autistic brain.
And that's just fine by her.
“Autism is an important part of who I am, and I don’t want to change the way I think and I wouldn’t want to be cured,” she said.
But it’s only one part of her, she stressed to a packed auditorium at Delaware Valley College on Oct. 2.
Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She is an animal behavioral expert; a best-selling author; a prominent lecturer; an advocate for different thinkers and the autism community – all because she got swept up in her passions, not society’s labels, when she was younger.
“The thing I get worried about, is I am seeing too many kids get all fixated on their autism. People on the spectrum [should] get fixated on their favorite things," she said. … I don’t like it when smart 9-year-olds walk up to me and all they want to do is tell me about their autism. I’d rather have them tell me about the fact that they like horses or they think astronomy is really cool or they like history."
Named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People, Grandin, who embraced her “eccentricities” to become a pioneer in livestock handling, shared her life story and discussed her thoughts on autism, Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia, ADHD and other associated disorders during a visit to DelVal’s campus. During a presentation on “The Autistic Brain,” Grandin discussed the latest scientific research, fielded questions from the crowd and also signed copies of her books.
The subject of an award-winning HBO movie starring Claire Danes, Grandin showed signs of autism by the time she was 2. Rather than institutionalize her daughter as doctors recommended, Grandin’s mother enrolled her in speech therapy lessons and early education intervention; she also encouraged her daughter’s interest in art.
Bullied as a teenager, Grandin found solace in hands-on activities and specialized interests, including horseback riding and her high school's model rocket club. She worked various jobs – including on her aunt’s ranch in Arizona – and obtained a bachelor’s degree at Franklin Pierce College before embarking on a groundbreaking career as a livestock equipment designer.
“Here I was, a girl, going into a man’s industry in the ‘70s. I was this weird geek," she said. "But when I pulled out my drawings, then I’d get respect. You see, when you’re weird you got to sell your work rather than yourself.”
Grandin, who suggested there are four different types of thinkers, supplemented her talk with copies of her drawings and brain scans, one of which revealed she has a larger-than-normal visual circuit.
“I am a photo-realistic visual thinker. Everything I think about is a picture,” she explained. “Now when I was young, I didn’t know that other people didn’t think in pictures. I thought everybody thought the way I did. Then gradually over the years I’ve learned how my thinking is different, and that’s a big asset as an equipment designer because I could test run things in my head.”
Pointing to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, she said the world needs different minds.
"They made a mistake no visual person would make," she said. "They put their emergency generators, that run super important emergency cooling pumps and all the electrical panels, in a non-waterproof basement. Had they put submarines doors in and sump pumps this would not have happened.”
“You see that’s why you need the visual thinker working with the mathematical mind,” she said. “... Different kinds of minds can complement each other.”
Thanks to her unique sensitivities, Grandin is widely recognized for breeching the closed off domain of animals, DelVal President Joseph Brosnan said.
A champion of animal welfare, her contributions to the livestock industry are numerous and include the design of curved chutes that have reduced stress on cattle during handling.
“She’s made a huge impact in keeping our livestock happier and healthier,” said DelVal senior Alexandra Ciavardelli, an equine science and management major, prior to Grandin’s talk. “As humans, we really are single-minded and we don’t really realize that animals see things differently than us.”
Tracing back to the beginning of her career, Grandin detailed how her visual way of thinking helped her see the world through animals’ eyes.
“They’re afraid of shadows. Reflections. Coats on fences. Cars going by. Visual details we tend to not see,” she said. “So I started looking at what are animals seeing? ... What’s an animal looking at? What is it oriented toward? What is it perceiving? What is it hearing?”
“An animal’s world is sensory based, not word based. You want to understand animals, understand people who don’t use language,” she suggested.
When teaching children on the autism spectrum, she encouraged the use of specific examples and directions – you can’t be vague, she exclaimed. The individual talents of autistic children, she added, have to be built up. She emphasized the need for mentors and early intervention education. She also expressed concern that children are being coddled and that they’re not learning basic social skills, something “pounded in” during her era.
"You’ve got to stretch these kids. You’ve got to stretch them," she insisted.
She lamented the disappearance of skills-based courses from the education system, and said she's seeing too many smart kids "getting addicted to video games and going nowhere."
"I think one of the worst things the schools have done is take out art, music, wood shop, auto shop, metalworking shop, drafting,” she said.
Those activities, she argued, teach resourcefulness and represent fruitful career opportunities for different types of thinkers.
“We’ve taken out the hands-on (activities). I think it’s totally bad," she said. "That’s the stuff that saved me."
Copyright ©2013 Bucks County Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.